What and How not Why and When

“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.”

---Thomas Berger

“Compassion is curiosity with assumption.”

--Krista Tippett

Mental illness is a scary thing, not just for those like me who live with it, but for most everyone else. So much so that the mere mention of the subject is apt to invoke terror in the hearts and minds of many.

That said, I do think people have an innate desire to help. But, in response to someone suffering from depression, bipolar, or dark thoughts of suicide, they may cry aloud, “what can I do?”

The danger is, absent an answer to their plea, a person may retreat behind reasoning that suggests there is nothing they can do because they are not capable or qualified. But, the truth is, there are simple, little, easy things we can ALL do that can make an enormous difference.

But, before we act, we must first become aware of those not-so-hidden anxieties we may harbor around the subject at hand. To that end, I believe the most direct path to overcoming the fears we have about mental illness, and one of the most helpful things we can do, is to leverage the power of curiosity. To assuage our concerns, we must lean on questions to mitigate, and ideally, banish them, and in doing so, create an opening so we might render aid.

More simply, in our desire to help, we must first ask.

In asking we signal our authentic desire first to become informed and educated before jumping in with our best intentions. The beautiful thing is the actual act of inquiry is simple and done most effectively by querying the soul who stands before us with questions that begin with, “what” and “how” not, “why” and “when.” 

The next step is even easier. After we ask, we simply listen, all the while resisting the temptation to thrust forward our unrequested advice.

As we practice this art form, we will come to realize the opposite of fear isn’t calm, its understanding, and the more we understand, the less we fear.  

Understanding is mighty and awesome and wonderous. It is like an oasis in a barren land. It is rich acreage, full of a surprising abundance of what’s needed most, yet found in the least likely of places.

At a minimum, understanding provides prime real estate to build an informed opinion. At best, understanding creates a sanctuary of mutuality and an Eden of comradery; a place where the fields are ripe with compassion, empathy, and kindness. And, as Jean Jacques Rousseau asks us, “what wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?”

In my first blog I shared the initial question posed to me by the first responder who approached me as I prepared to step off the 730-foot high Foresthill Bridge; “David, what does it feel like to be depressed?”

What I didn’t share were the balance of the questions he leveraged on that last day of August in 2011, the asking of which saved my life.   

“How long have you lived with this condition?”

“How has this condition shaped you and influenced your personality?”

“What do you want the world to know about depression?”

In response to each I shared, he listened, and we connected by way of understanding. Unbeknownst to me, from our union fell small seeds of hope that dropped into the cracks of the cement bridge deck. And, from them sprang forth tiny blossoms of hope. And, it was on one of those blooms, he pivoted me.  

“David, what is it like on your best days?”

And then, “what do you want the rest of your life to look like?”

Questions, laced with compassion and empathy, birthed understanding. The resulting connection literally changed my mind as the certainty I had to end my life was replaced with the possibility of more life to come.

I turned to my left and retraced my steps off the bridge. It was then off to the emergency room, and then to the psych hospital and the beginning of my march towards mental health, a beautiful place I now call home.  

We ask, “what can I do?”

How about we do what we have done since we were children?   

How about we stand in the space of, “curiosity without assumption,” and let the magic of story find us on the smooth and level ground of understanding?

How about we give the gift of time and attention and listen to the story of a soul in need?

Quite possibly the simple act of asking, at the feeling level, and then being present to the response may be enough to help a person become unstuck and provide the thrust which enables them to take their first steps toward mental wellness.

It worked for me.  

What if it could work for others, too?

What if that’s the answer to, “what can I do? “

We are #HereForYou

David Woods Bartley

Mental Health Speaker / Trainer / Writer / Advocate


David BartleyCBHDA